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The Commonness of the Common Good

A truly virtuous society is one that invites all into participation of the common good of friendship with God.

(Image: Jacek Dylag/

In The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists (1943), the Thomist philosopher Charles Dekoninck put his finger on the metaphysical origins of all war and conflict. The root of such evils is a distortion of the very idea of the common good, and a distortion of the desire for the common good that is natural to mankind. In the Thomistic tradition, the common good is by its very nature meant to be shared amongst a multitude of individuals, rather than reserved exclusively for private enjoyment. Furthermore, it is a good that does not diminish when it is shared; on the contrary, enjoyment of this good increases precisely in the measure that it is shared.

War and conflict arise when the common good is desired not for its commonness, but simply for private enjoyment. In Dekoninck’s words, “The fallen angels did not refuse the perfection of the good that was offered them, they refused its community and they scorned that community” (The Writings of Charles Dekoninck, Vol. 2, 79-80). DeKoninck here is fully consistent with St. Thomas Aquinas, who writes that “to love the good of any society so that it might be had or possessed, does not constitute the political good. Thus does a tyrant love the good of the state in order to dominate it, which is to love himself more than the state; for he desires this good for himself, not for the state” (Quaestiones Disputatae de Virtutibus Q.2 A.2.). By contrast, to love the common good as one should is to love it precisely as common, to love its very communicability, and thus to love the whole community of persons for whom that good is intended.

The idea of the common good is easily illustrated by the example of friendship. Friendship is, in a way, a paradigmatic instance of the common good. Friendship practically consists in the shared enjoyment among two or more people of some good held in common. This is a good that is desirable to human beings by their very nature, even though they sometimes contradict the virtues of friendship through their actions. Such offenses essentially consist in a failure of sharing, or a failure to treat the common good of friendship as truly common, and they result in the destruction of friendships and the birth of conflicts. A virtuous friendship is one that treats what is common as common, rather than seeking to privatize shared goods or possess them to the exclusion of others.

But human friendship is not the only, or even the most important, example of the common good. Even more pertinent to the common good is friendship with God. Indeed, this is the highest and most universal of all common goods, because it is the end to which all human beings without exception are called. But whereas any human friendship can be broken by either of the two friends causing a disruption in their community of enjoyment, in friendship with God, this community can only be disrupted by man. God cannot break any friendship, for he is himself the shared good that constitutes his friendship with his creatures.

Because friendship with God is a common good, it follows that a virtuous person is one who loves the common good precisely as something to be shared, and therefore he does not rob from any of his fellows any of those things on which they depend for their ability to participate in the common good. Nor does he appeal to the common good which he enjoys as a justification for depriving others of its enjoyment. Rather, he seeks the good of others – the essence of Christian love – and desires for them what he himself enjoys. Nor does a virtuous person appeal to his own virtue in order to exclude others from the common good. Instead, he seeks to help others become virtuous like himself, so that they may enjoy the same goods with him in friendship and solidarity.

Furthermore, because friendship with God is a common good, its achievement is the direct responsibility of human society as such, and those to whom authority over society is given. It follows that any society – the family, the city, the nation, or even the international community – may be judged according to how it facilitates the diffusion of the common good amongst its members. A truly virtuous society is one that invites all into participation of the common good of friendship with God. It is a society that provides them with the material and spiritual conditions that they require for participation in the common good. To the extent that the material or spiritual conditions of a given society prevent anyone from participating in the common good, that society suffers from a fundamental injustice.

It is on these grounds that the Catholic tradition has always viewed capitalist economies with much suspicion. Capitalism has always struggled to justify itself by relation to the common good, and indeed in many cases its apologists have renounced this concept altogether. In any case, from the point of view of the Catholic tradition, the grave inequalities of wealth, the obsession with material gain, the preponderance of time that is lost in the pursuit of material gain, etc., are structural conditions that militate against full participation in the common good of society. These conditions rather breed resentment, isolation, selfishness, and conflict, sure signs that the diffusive quality of the common good is not being permitted to blossom. One might say that such conditions are indicative of a structural inclination against universal friendship among men as well as friendship with God.

The same principle obtains among nations on the international scale. A nation that appeals to the common good in order to justify actions that effectively deprive others of its enjoyment, thereby abuses the very nature of the common good. The wickedness of every unjust declaration of war originates in exactly this abuse, which is an offense against justice. Countless forms of religious violence have originated from this same error. The needless pillage and destruction that often result from modern warfare deprive ordinary people of the ability to participate in the common good. This cannot be justified on religious grounds, for religion itself pertains to the most common of goods, namely God himself.

The error of many forms of nationalism, especially religious nationalism, is precisely that they subordinate religion to a merely particular good (the good of the nation) as opposed to the truly universal good. Any form of religion that makes itself serve the ends of a particular nation state is thus an abuse of religion, because religion pertains to the worship of God, who is the absolutely universal good. Indeed, the relationship ought to be the reverse: particular nations and their governing authorities ought to serve religion, and especially that religion which lays claim to universality.

The Catholic religion is nearly alone among religions in that it does not tie itself down to particular nationalities or regional identities. As such, it has always been the greatest threat to nationalist forms of totalitarianism, even to Christian versions of nationalism. Catholicism necessarily undermines any exclusionary claim to national sovereignty, especially when such a claim is backed by an appeal to the national religion. Although some nations have attempted to use Catholicism itself this way, by its nature Catholicism refuses to be the servant of any nature, because its claims absolutely transcend national boundaries and it makes its appeal to all nations. “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

By the same token, the Catholic Faith makes its appeal to all human beings regardless of class. The supernatural destiny which the Catholic Church oversees is proposed to all human beings without exception – the meaning of Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness.” In this way, the Church has always been perceived as an enemy to the individualistic ideology of liberalism, not to mention the political and economic structures over which liberal ideology presides. Because these structures attempt to facilitate the privatization of all goods, including goods that are properly common goods, their rulers and apologists have always viewed the claims of Catholicism as a formidable threat.

The conversion of the world and its powers is thus of the highest priority for the Catholic Church. Catholicism is related to the common good in a special way, precisely because of the universality of its claims, and therefore the Church and her members possess a particularly grave responsibility to society at large. This responsibility consists in nothing short of the reconstruction and sanctification of the whole temporal order, including and especially the political order, and its reorientation to the common good of friendship with God.

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About Jonathan Culbreath 4 Articles
Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, a site dedicated to the recovery of Catholic social teaching.


  1. #1. For the very reasons stated so well in this piece, the Vatican should cease seeing itself as a “State” akin to that of China, the USA and Serbia. It should eliminate the office of “Secretary of State” and stop receiving “Ambassadors.” The Church headquartered in Rome is above all temporal orders being ordered to the Divine.

    #2. Since Faith is a gift from God, it too should be considered a “common good” and must, therefore, be shared as a matter of justice. So why as Catholics are we not evangelizing?

    • “Since Faith is a gift from God”. You are so right and we need to remind ourselves of this eternal truth.

      Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

      Romans 10:17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

      Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

      Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

      2 Corinthians 5:7 For we walk by faith, not by sight.

      Luke 17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

      God bless you as He leads you in paths of righteousness.

  2. “Catholicism necessarily undermines any exclusionary claim to national sovereignty” (Culbreath). Common Good an essential natural law principle is also highly complex in understanding and implementation. A primary reason is the tension between the good of the individual and its correct relation to the good of all. That will include the concept of national sovereignty.
    Exclusionary nationalism may not mean exclusion of justice when we consider contemporary examples of the right to national borders and a claim to maintaining an ethnic and cultural identity. Variety in creation, the common good expressed in multi ethnic cultural difference actually indicates the richness of the divine intelligence. Hungary in its persecution by the EU who claim to represent the common good, open border migration, as is the questionable wisdom of the US open border policy in which we have Catholic prelates who advocate for such policy and the potential destruction of a great nation are reasonable examples of the misuse of this principle.
    So then, the common good is a viable principle when in its existential expression the natural law rights of persons and nations are observed.

  3. Thank you , helps to clarify what can afflict persons in various realms – such as for exmaple those who are active in parishes, moved more by motives of vainglory and contorl , pride etc :, thus falling into fears and envy against others having the ‘frienship ‘ with The Lord . The greed and competitiveness that the Holy Father refers to as the poison … ? even between various Congregations , Churches , ministries …Friendship with God as the higest good – given us esp. in the Eucharist …
    yet, there too ,the example of Judas .. ? moved more by carnal envy towards The Lord , not able to take in the pure, holy , innocent Love in The Lord , ? seeing The Mother with contempt, having listened to the evil gossip is Satan who comes in to him at The Last Supper ..

    May The Spirit help us to see the riches in His frienship ,the Flame ofLove of The Immaculate Heart blinding Satan , that we desire same for all with all our heart – to Love God with the Will and Love with which He loves us as in the Holy Eucharist .
    FIAT !

  4. Sometimes, as in Spain 1936, it is necessary to fuse Catholicism with the national cause in order to vindicate the common good.

    • And I don’t deny that but read Simone Weil’s letter to Bernanos. THe violations of the common good were enormous.
      A final story, this one from behind the lines: two anarchists told me how, with some comrades, they had captured two priests; they killed one on the spot, in the other’s presence, with, with a gunshot, then they told the other he could leave. 18 When he was a twenty paces, they shot him down. 19 The one who was telling me the story was very surprised when he didn’t see me laugh.

  5. We read: “The Catholic religion is nearly alone among religions in that it does not tie itself down to particular nationalities or regional identities.”

    Except for Islam, which counts 2 billion followers from Morocco to the Philippines, compared to 2.2 billion for all Christians, of which 1.3 billion are Catholic. Under Islam, the presumption of commonness applies to members of the Qur’anic and transnational ummah or family of Islam; and the Christian notion of natural law and the common good does not find a congruent counterpart. The notion of universal friendship is recentered to Mecca; and the non-trinitarian nature of distant Allah complicates things further–i.e., “faith” in the person of Jesus Christ (“the Word made flesh”) versus religious “belief” in the Qur’an (“the word made book”).

    Islam became cosmopolitan—no longer only tribally Arabian—when the Abbasid Caliphate replaced the Umayyads in the year 750 A.D., or year 128 Islamic time as measured from Mohammad’s flight (the Hegira) from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. (or year zero Islamic time).

    Which is to say that signing the Abu Dhabi Declaration (2019) implying the equivalence of religions and promoting “fraternity” (“friendship”) is both a daring move and highly problematic. We are at a very historic and pivotal point in (throwback?) world history, with waning confidence that the distracted red hats in Rome have a clue what to say about it. The Church’s delayed response to upstart Luther was due in part to the distracting Islamic invasion into eastern Europe under Suleiman the Magnificent.

    An excellent article, the above, about the common good and nation-states, but beneath the Western veneer, Islam is not exactly a state nor a multinational state. Globally, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

    Leads one to wonder what kind of generic verbiage that the Church and what’s left of the West might expect from the new super-dicastery of Evangelization.

    • Dear Peter:

      Islam, one might consider! We have the Sunnis, Shia and all the other fellows who find no concordance except they proclaim the 5 pillars of faith! It does not keep them from each others throats, for they view those with a slightly different perspective as infidels, sad to say. Islam, since its inception, is the embodiment of war, discord and woefulness.

      Yet, in fairness, I invite a Muslim to offer his point of view and or consider Jesus Christ!

      You and i share mutual tenets of faith. The Holy Trinity (Father, Son and holy Spirit). We proclaim the virgin birth of Jesus, His death and resurrection and his coming again. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder to help Muslims come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

      Luther believed this and proclaimed it to all who would listen and he seems to have had quite an impact.

      Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

      John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

      Galatians 2:16 Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

      Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

      Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

      We are to respect our fellow man and his highest good is found in faith in Jesus Christ. Putting our respective talents together will bring some Muslims into the kingdom of God.

      Yours in Christ,


  6. Instead of constantly obsessing about reconstructing and sanctifying the temporal order, the church should try doing what Jesus told it to do : make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all that He has commanded. I sometimes think that the church has theologized itself right out of Christianity.

  7. As a postscript to, “Catholicism necessarily undermines any exclusionary claim to national sovereignty” (Culbreath), which in principle is correct, we have the issue of Common Law practicality and the right to justice in world affairs. That is evidenced in a religion, Catholicism claiming the right to national sovereignty in order to exist as a coherent entity.
    “The bishops of Rome first acquired lands around the city in the 4th century; these lands were known as the Patrimony of St. Peter. Beginning in the 5th century, when the Western Empire officially came to an end and the influence of the Eastern [Byzantine] Empire in Italy weakened, the power of the bishops, who were now often called papa or pope, increased as the populace turned to them for aid and protection. Pope Gregory the Great, for example, did a great deal to help refugees from invading Lombards and even managed to establish peace with the invaders for a time. Gregory is credited with consolidating the papal holdings into a unified territory. While officially the lands that would become the Papal States were considered part of the Eastern Roman Empire, for the most part, they were overseen by officers of the Church.
    The official beginning of the Papal States came in the 8th century. Thanks to the Eastern empire’s increased taxation and inability to protect Italy, and, more especially, the emperor’s views on iconoclasm, Pope Gregory II broke with the empire, and his successor, Pope Gregory III, upheld the opposition to the iconoclasts. Then, when the Lombards had seized Ravenna and were on the verge of conquering Rome, Pope Stephen II [or III] turned to the King of the Franks, Pippin III [the Short]. Pippin promised to restore the captured lands to the pope; he then succeeded in defeating the Lombard leader, Aistulf, and made him return the lands the Lombards had captured to the papacy, ignoring all Byzantine claims to the territory” (ThoughtCo).

  8. Seems totally wrong-headed to not state clearly that even if hurting one person ‘benefitted” hundreds it would be wrong. The Common Good MUST recognize first personal inviolable unalienable human rights. I think Koninck misses the boat. Take a visit to DC’s new Victims of Communism museum honoring the 100 million killed by their own government in the name of the common good. Stalin used to enjoy sending workers to the gulags for complaining about the Workers Paradise !!

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